Behavioral Health Terms: A Quick Guide

The Language of Behavioral Health

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, school administrator, primary caregiver, or simply a concerned friend or relative, keeping up with the latest behavioral health terminology can be challenging. Sometimes words used in the context of health care mean something different than what they mean in their day-to-day context. Also, as time passes, terms change. For people who work regularly in behavioral health, these changes happen gradually, and don’t seem like a big deal. For people who don’t work in behavioral health, however, this is not the case: what a phrase meant twenty years ago might not mean the same thing today. To help keep up with the latest vocabulary in the world of child and adolescent behavioral health, we compiled a simple list that defines the most common words you might come across when they’re involved in the life of a child or adolescent experiencing behavioral or emotional challenges.

We’ll define the words and phrases in as straightforward a manner as possible

The Quick Guide

 Behavioral Health

Refers to the sum total of what a person feels, thinks, and does during the course of their daily life, and how those things affect their overall health and well-being.

Behavioral Health Challenge

What occurs when what a person feels, thinks, and does interferes with or interrupts their daily life.

Behavioral Health Service: Refers to the various kinds of support a child receives for their behavioral health challenges.

Behavioral Health Care Providers

Refers to the people whose job it is to help individuals facing behavioral health challenges. The most common providers are psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and various types of counselors and therapists.

Behavioral Health Support Specialist

General term for a person who comes to a school and offers behavioral health support to children in the classroom.

Children’s Behavioral Specialist

A behavioral health professional who is specially trained to support children facing behavioral health challenges.

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

A federally funded health care program for children that provides low-cost health insurance to families who do not qualify for Medicaid. The range of coverage varies from state to state. In many states, CHIP also covers parents and pregnant women.

Community-Based Behavioral Health Services

Also known as “Wraparound Services.” These services are designed to help a child handle behavioral health challenges across the different areas of his or her life: at home, at school, and in the community.

Community Support

In the behavioral health context, community support means groups that offer fellowship and peer assistance for a variety of behavioral health issues. The most well-known community support group – in this context – is Alcoholics Anonymous. Support are not only for people with alcohol or substance use disorders, however. Groups exist for people struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders, people dealing with grief and loss, and family members of people with substance use of other behavioral/emotional disorders.

Complementary Therapy

A therapy is considered complementary when it meets two criteria: 1. It’s outside the mainstream, and 2. It’s used in conjunction with a traditional, conventional therapeutic approach. Complementary therapies include things like equine therapy, surf therapy, yoga, mindfulness, acupuncture, exercise, and meditation.

Counselor

A licensed professional in the field of psychology. Counselors help patients change behaviors related to substance use, emotional, and/or behavioral disorders. A licensed counselor will hold a master’s degree (M.A.) in psychology or a related field.

Developmental Psychology

A subject that examines the stages of mental and emotional growth of an individual, and how the physical and psychological aspects of an individual’s growth are related.

Evaluation

The process a child who is experiencing behavioral health challenges goes through in order to determine the best ways to support that child. An evaluation must be performed by a certified professional, such as a medical doctor or a clinical psychologist.

Family Therapy

A type of support or counseling that includes the family members – biological or otherwise – of the individual receiving treatment in the treatment process. Family sessions typically complement individual therapy.

Group Therapy

A type of support session that involves a counselor (or psychiatrist, psychologist, or other behavioral health professional) working with more than one child at a time.

Inpatient Treatment

A type of treatment where the individual lives at the treatment location during treatment. This is often called residential treatment, or, more simply, rehab. However, rehab is an old term that mental health professionals no longer use. When they do use it, it’s typically informal, or used while talking to people who aren’t mental health professionals.

Integrated Treatment

A model of treatment developed to support individuals with co-occurring substance use and mental/emotional disorders. An integrated treatment model addresses alcohol/substance and emotional/behavioral disorders simultaneously, thereby increasing the chances of recovery for both.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment

A level of support in which the individual spends part of a day – typically three hours – in treatment, but continues to live at home, go to school, or work. This type of treatment is for individuals who need more support than outpatient treatment, but less than inpatient/residential treatment.

Mental Health

The state of a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Mindfulness

Refers to a growing group of therapeutic practices loosely based on eastern traditions such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Mindfulness, at its core, asks individuals to focus on the present moment, attune themselves to their immediate physical sensations and environment, and listen closely to their thoughts as they are now, not as they wish them to be in the future or as they were at some point in the past.

Mobile Therapist

A counselor (or psychiatrist, psychologist, or other behavioral health professional) who travels wherever is necessary to give one-on-one support to a child or individual receiving community behavioral health (wraparound) services.

Ongoing Care

Also known as aftercare. This phase of treatment occurs after residential, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or general outpatient treatment. Ongoing care can include community support or regularly scheduled group or individual therapy.

Outpatient Support

A level of support individuals receive in the office of a behavioral health professional. Outpatient service does not happen at home or in the school, but rather in a clinic, hospital, or other location.

Partial Hospitalization

A level of support in which an individual spends a full day at the treatment location, but lives at home. Treatment typically occurs during the working/school week – Monday-Friday – and not on the weekends. This level of care is for individuals who need more support than outpatient or intensive outpatient treatment, but less than inpatient/residential treatment.

Positive Behavioral Intervention

A term used by schools to refer to a system of behavioral support put in place by a school or an entire school district. It involves students, parents, teachers, administrators and anyone directly involved in the life of the child.

Response to Instruction/Response to Intervention (RTI)

A general term that’s used in schools to describe the way in which a child who is receiving behavioral health support is reacting to that support. It’s a way of asking and answering the question “How is the support working?”

Therapists

Behavioral health care professionals who give individual counseling to children facing behavioral health challenges. Therapists typically hold a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in psychology, counseling, or social work.

Psychiatrist

A medical doctor (M.D.) who receives special training after medical school geared toward helping individuals facing mental and/or emotional challenges. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications to treat behavioral health challenges.

SST, STS, SS

These are common acronyms that schools use to describe the teams they assemble to offer a child behavioral health support. A series of S’s and T’s typically stand for “Student Support Team” or “Student Therapeutic Support” or “Student Services.”  Terms are typically consistent within a state. However, these acronyms change from state to state.

Sliding Scale

Individuals without insurance, or with insurance that does not cover behavioral health services, can ask for a sliding scale before they receive services from a professional. A sliding scale is an adjustment made by the provider that takes into account an individual’s specific income and/or insurance situation.

Trauma-Informed Care

An approach to counseling and behavioral health that takes into account the specific history of the individual facing challenges. This approach looks at what has happened in an individual’s past, and how it’s affecting an individual’s present life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Traumatic events that occur in the life of a child that increase their risk of developing long-term physical and/or behavioral health disorders.

The ACE Study

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was the largest scientific study ever conducted on the effects of negative childhood experiences on mental and emotional well-being later in life. The study examined the effect of childhood trauma on over seventeen thousand people, first in Southern California and later in Philadelphia. This is not a behavioral health term, per se, but anyone involved in the life of a child living with a behavioral health disorder should take the time to read this study.

A Little Support Goes a Long Way

This list is not exhaustive. It will, however, give you enough knowledge to have a conversation with anyone involved in the process of supporting your child, friend, student, or loved one as they manage their behavioral health challenge. It will also help you interact with the individual managing the challenge. They’ll appreciate the time you took to learn about their situation. It may not seem like a lot, but the more you know about what they’re going through – including just being up to speed on the basic terminology – the more you can support them. From their point of view, knowing there’s one more person out there looking out for them can make a big difference.